In 2017, Big Bollywood was rescued by Salman Khan.
You could scoff at the statement above, terming it hyperbolic, completely befitting the movies. Or you could look bemusedly at the galloping numbers of Tiger Zinda Hai (according to trade experts, it’s already made close to Rs 300 crore) to understand just how relieved the moneybags are by the Bhai juggernaut, which has rolled over into the new year, and is still going strong.If this Yash Raj-produced, Abbas Ali Zafar-directed, Salman-fronted soupy spy saga hadn’t hit the mass audience spot at the fag end of the year, 2017 would have been remembered as the year that showed the Superstar, that very desi term that denotes the difference between the super-se-bhi-oopar star and the mere star, the door.
Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Harry Met Sejal died at the box office — neither his nor director Imtiaz Ali’s legions of fans could save its steep dive to the bottom. And Salman Khan’s Tubelight had the temerity to treat us, the viewers, as dim bulbs, and was promptly punished for it.
The only superstar who remained unscathed, and consolidated his pole position, was Akshay Kumar. His Toilet, Ek Prem Katha firmed up the leading man’s resolve to continue on his path of socially responsible cinema, which speaks to both the establishment as well as to a large section of the audience, which truly believes that movies can empower people, and change the status quo.
And Aamir Khan, who has always had the smarts to see the future, showed up as a bit part in his own production Secret Superstar. The main attractions were the mother-daughter pair of Meher Vij and Zaira Wasim, and the theme, which went over big in 2017, female empowerment — Khan’s was a supporting act, both on and off screen.
Only some of these big-star, big-budget tentpoles won the box office and our hearts because they not only read the writing on the wall, they wrote afresh on those walls, and managed to bring them down. Films are not created on set, with the stars simply showing up, spouting dialogue. Those days are done and dusted, and 2017 showed the way. The ones that get our vote and our banknotes, are first created and fleshed out in writers’ imaginations, and in that process, given meaning and intention.
Here are our predictions, mingled with hopes, for 2018. The Khandom — Aamir, Salman, Shah Rukh — and the other notable biggies, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, and strictly-bringing-up-the-rear-Saif, will continue to hold sway only if they agree to work in tandem with strongly written stories that dictate the course of the movie, not their worn, overused personas. As the earlier Abbas Ali Zafar-Salman Khan 2016 hit Sultan showed, even Bhai needs a script.
The other big feature of 2017 was the rise of the strong female character in the kind of films that would once have been deemed “fringe”. In a clutch of films — Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death In The Gunj, Avinash Das’s Anaarkali of Aarah, Tanuja Chandra’s Qarib Qarib Single, Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu, Hansal Mehta’s Simran — women were determinedly, delightfully on top.
Given the film industry’s notorious fear of risk (and what can be more risky than “lady-oriented” projects?), the very fact that these films were made and released is a huge marker. Some of them even made a bit of money; all earned audience appreciation.
Here’s a quick reckoner for 2018. The fallout of the erstwhile Padmavati, now called Padmavat, has successfully destroyed the primacy of the female character, and dangerously doubled down on the fictive aspect of the movie. Now Sanjay Leela Bhansali doesn’t need to labour upon the distinction between history and myth: the CBFC and the extra-constitutional powers who were invited to weigh in, have done it for us.
The damage is immense, but hopefully not irreversible. By taking away the locus of place and person and name from the film, the message to filmmakers is: go back to la-la land, and get your censor certificates with ease.
The fight for realism driven by specificity is back. Giving in means a return to the dark ages. Of course Shakespeare was being rhetorical — a name is everything.
The question that hangs over Bollywood is an age-old one. How do you reel in the punter? It is getting increasingly difficult to draw the viewer out from her sticky Netflix/Amazon/YouTube universe, which she can access on the go, on tablets and cellphones. Fumbling stars are hoping that “web series” will become their saviours: Saif Ali Khan is greenlighting Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games for Netflix; other biggies are in talks over developing projects which are freer to explore cinema taboos subjected to antiquated censor guidelines, especially issues around gender, parity, identity.
But here’s the thing: there is nothing on the Web yet that will take us away, irrevocably, from the movies. Finally, inevitably, what you get on the Web (barring a few exceptions) comes under the description of “content”: that deathly generic term with the power to sap all creativity. We defy you to watch, on your personal devices, S S Rajamouli’s mytho-drama Baahubali (Parts 1 and 2), or Star Wars, The Last Jedi (the nth part of the space opera), and get the same enjoyment as you would on the big screen.
The big event films — superheroes, creature feature, space sagas — are here to stay, even if they are constantly under pressure to get bigger and bigger. But even they will have to work to a smart script: bad writing can kill even the flashiest technology and the zippiest computer graphics. The ‘small’ films, big on ideas, will continue to be made, with a little more confidence. And legacy Bollywood will begin to let go of its feeble superstar-driven fantasies.
About to open near you soon is Akshay Kumar talking up the virtues of the sanitary napkin in Padman. Shah Rukh Khan is set to play a dwarf in Zero, his cleverly titled new film. Kamal Haasan had done the same thing 20 years ago in Appu Raja, minus computer trickery. But still, it signals a willingness to change — if the big guys do it, the trickle may become a flood.
Here’s looking at you, 2018.
(WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2018 — TOMORROW: STOCK MARKETS)